Ripples 9/7/17

The life around us flows like tides in the ocean.  In spring, the tide of migrant birds and insects flows north, finding places which support their families.  After a successful summer, even more animals flow south again to places where food is available in the winter.  In spring, these movements are obvious as the birds are dressed in their finest colors, but now they quietly flit among the leaves filling their bellies with insects, spiders, and fruit between long flights southward.

Places covered in good habitat, meaning lots of native plants, are also covered in birds right now.  A recent 10-minute, stream-side stop on a quiet evening revealed that the trees and shrubs were anything but quiet, instead populated by many warblers like the Tennessee, and yellow-rumped, American redstart, and northern waterthrush, along with Swainson’s thrush, wrens, catbirds, grosbeaks, song sparrows, cardinals, and robins.  Down by the water, a spotted sandpiper looked for different bugs, and a hummingbird, instead of it’s usual search among the jewelweed and other flowers for nectar, was delicately plucking insects from a dead tree branch.  None were singing, save the squeak-toy sounds of a nuthatch, and if one didn’t listen for the soft call notes, one wouldn’t know the birds were there.  The foraging of the birds coincided with the emergence of many winged queen and drone ants that evening- an unfortunate ending to the ant’s wedding night, I suppose.

photo of a Red-breasted nuthatch

Red-breasted nuthatch

These fall flights are all made possible by the presence of native plants.  The insects here, the overwhelming majority of which are beneficial or at least not noxious, have no interest in foreign plants.   Their lives depend on the natives, and the lives of birds depend on them.  We have removed a lot of native plants from our world and substituted non-natives, and it is estimated that there are now far fewer birds as a result.  Fortunately, northern Wisconsin has a lot of native forest, and there are enough scattered patches around here that we can still experience these wonderful migrations, even if they are diminished.  Fortunately, we are coming to realize that even landscape plantings of natives around our homes can provide some habitat for wildlife.

Wetlands, too, are especially good for wildlife.  The combination of water and native plants can produce many insects and other food for wildlife.  More than half of the wetlands which once existed are gone now, the land having been put to other uses.  Of course from time to time we are reminded that wetlands also serve to store floodwater and even after we alter and drain them, water still seeks those areas out. Each fall we find out what happens when homes are placed in areas that used to be wetlands and now subject to tropical storms.  Like many of us, I will gladly deal with winter rather than be flattened and flooded by such weather, and I feel badly for those who are.

All the native plants, and wetlands, which are preserved or planted contribute to the welfare of wildlife in the fall, when migrants need help the most.  Many of them are in their first year, and on their first major journey, and it is the most dangerous time of their lives. Know that the things you’ve planted in this and previous years, may make the difference between survival and death for them. Know too, that with your help they will again return next spring in a brighter and louder form to once again improve your yard and make for you a better day.

photo: a red-breasted nuthatch from Wikipedia

Ripples 8/31/17

Our natural world is comprised of both living and non-living components, and the last third of our summer this year was enhanced by the non-living.  Amongst the most spectacular natural phenomenons – the Perseid meteor shower and the solar eclipse. 

We, at Woodland Dunes, are fortunate enough to have  our own little observatory, the Alyea Sky Shed.  It’s equipped with a magnificent telescope and manned by volunteers Al and Ben, both great amateur astronomers.  The dynamic night-sky duo offer frequent evening programs, but because they’re weather-dependent, they sometimes happen with a day’s notice. (Check our Facebook page to find last-minute posts announcing these “star parties.”)  People are welcome to bring their own scopes and get advice on how to use them.

photo of crescent sun during eclipse

Crescent sun

I was fortunate to check off a “bucket list” item when the solar eclipse occurred.  I have family in Tennessee, which we always visit in the summer.  The path of totality for the eclipse ran just a couple hours from where we stay, so on the advise of my brother-in-law, we found ourselves in the lovely little town of Franklin, NC, nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains on the morning of Aug. 21.  There were about 10,000 people gathered in a town with a population of 1,500 normally, and the atmosphere was festive!

They were well prepared. The civic center had astronomers on hand and NASA’s live broadcast was airing inside.  They handed out 2,000 pairs of eclipse glasses to visitors, and there were vendors and children’s activities on the streets.  Every business was open and packed with people, especially the handful of restaurants. Even the little Scottish-American heritage shop (there are apparently more people of Scottish ancestry in North Carolina than there are in Scotland) was participating in the celebration.

photo of the town of Franklin, TN during eclipse

Town of Franklin during eclipse

At about 1pm the moon began to pass in front of the sun, and gradually people began to find their special places to watch the event.  The sunlight began to fade, and people became quieter as it did.  Somebody had a drone, which flew above.  People watched the sliver of sun shrink, and noted with concern a large cloud approaching from the south.  Sure enough, just as the last bit of crescent sun could be seen, the cloud advanced – but it didn’t entirely obscure the sun/moon couplet.  At this point, most were trying to photograph the eclipse, and found that the transparent clouds actually made the scene more interesting.

Then, at 2:35, the last crescent of sun disappeared and the town was enveloped in an eerie, gloomy, semi-darkness.  Magically, the sun’s corona appeared above us, looking like something out of the “Lord of the Rings.”  A firework was set off, signaling that it was safe to view the event without protection and the crowd cheered.  All around was twilight. Streetlights came on and above was what looked like an eye staring down at us.  The moment was surreal and one had to fight the urge to spend too much time trying to record it so they could be present.  Our family couldn’t resist snapping a “selfie” of all of us with the corona above our heads, however. 

photo of Franklin during total eclipse

Franklin in total eclipse

After a few more seconds, we witnessed the “diamond ring” (where the tiniest bit of sun shines among the moon’s mountains), and then the return of the sun crescent on the other side of the moon. Fireworks charged again to signal “glasses on,” and folks cheered at the return of the sun.  Instantly, the corona disappeared and the sun crescent grew again.  People immediately began to leave as the daylight grew brighter.

It was wonderful to see so many people interested in a natural event and to know that so many across the country did as well.  I don’t know if anybody has talked about it, but I’m sure the economic impact was enormous compared to even the largest sporting or other events.

People came to see the eclipse because there was a lot of awareness around it.  There are amazing natural events all the time and I think we should talk about them more, highlighting the wonders of our area – both natural and historic.  I certainly wish for the sake of our local businesses that there could be a total eclipse here (but this is determined by physics, not people…). It must have been the most profitable day ever in Franklin, and the event introduced me to a small town I would love to visit again.

The next solar eclipse is only seven years off and totality occurs much closer to us.  If you can, I would recommend you experience it, and I hope your experience is as wonderful as this was for me.

photos- sun just before totality, Franklin NC during totality, sun’s corona above Franklin

 

8/24/17

Written by Woodland Dunes summer intern, Julia Adams

It has not been an uncommon sight for me to wake up and see some very interesting birds perched on the top of the barns near my house. Time and time again, turkey vultures have been basking in the sun with their wings outspread. Although they are not the most attractive bird, they have an interesting and unusual life.

Turkey vultures get their name from their resemblance to the wild turkey. They have very little or no feathers on their head, leaving their red skin exposed. This, combined with their dark plumage, is reminiscent of a male wild turkey. Standing 24 to 32 inches tall with a wingspan of 63 to 72 inches and weighing in at 1.8 to 5.2 pounds, they are much larger than turkeys. Unlike most birds, it is difficult to tell the difference between genders because both have the same plumage, coloration, and similar size.

Turkey vultures feed on carrion (dead animals) and prefer to eat those most recently deceased. Vulture means “tearer” referring to the way it tears flesh from a carcass. Their large olfactory lobe allows them to pick up the scent of ethyl mercaptan, a gas that is produced early in the decaying process. Their feet are flat and relatively weak, making them poorly adapted to grasping prey. Turkey vultures are often seen on the side of the road feeding on roadkill or near a body of water feeding on washed up fish. Rarely, they will feed on plant matter and they almost never kill their own food.

It is common to see turkey vultures with their wings spread open. It is believed the reason for this stance is to dry their wings, warm their body, and bake off bacteria. This behavior is similar between turkey vultures and other new world vultures, old world vultures and storks. Another process that is common between the turkey vultures and storks is called urohidrosis. Urohidrosis is a process that occurs when the turkey vulture defecates on its own legs. Although this is not appealing to humans, the evaporation of the water in the droppings helps the turkey vulture cool the blood vessels in its feet and unfeathered ankles.

Though they are large, turkey vultures can fall prey to other large birds such as great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, and bald eagles. As a defense mechanism, they will regurgitate semi-digested meat. They can feed on carrion and are not bothered by the smell of decaying meat. However, when other birds smell it, they are deterred from the turkey vulture’s nest due to the foul smell.
       
These birds do not have the best reputation mainly because humans believe that turkey vultures can carry viruses such as anthrax or hog cholera. However, turkey vultures have very strong stomach acid that destroys these types of viruses when their food is digested.

Turkey vultures are scavengers with unattractive habits, but they play an important role in our ecosystem by helping to control the spread of diseases.

Ripples 8/17/17

We are now approaching arguably the best time of year for hiking outdoors in our area.  Sure, each season has something special, but the late summer-early fall period seems to showcase all types of nature. At Woodland Dunes, we look forward to the season’s opportunities to see birds, wildflowers, insects, and mammals in abundance.

There are many excellent trails in our area. Mariner’s Trail of course showcases the Lakefront. The Ice Age Trail gives us opportunities to see more and more interesting areas around the County. Point Beach has more than a dozen miles of wonderful trails, and other places like Schuette Park are also great to view nature.

photo of blooming prairie

Blooming prairie

Woodland Dunes has about seven miles of trails which traverse different habitats.  This year’s wet weather has been a challenge and some trails were extremely wet well into July.  Willow Trail near our headquarters on Highway 310 was especially wet, but has now dried and is completely open. This trail is frequented by many migrating birds sneaking through the dense foliage or fishing on the West Twin.  The Steffen Prairie, only a quarter mile from headquarters, is filled with native wildflowers and grasses, butterflies, and dragonflies this time of year.  The Cattail Trail boardwalk, our most popular trail, is being renovated – widened and improved, and will have a floating kayak launch installed where it meets Rahmlow Creek and the West Twin. (Carts will be available to help people more easily get their kayaks to the launch.)

Along Columbus Street, both the Conifer Trail and the Ice Age Trail allow hikers to enjoy hundreds of acres of tranquil wetland forest with interesting old beach ridges and swales.  The forest is cool and dark, but openings such as the Kreshek meadow south of 10th Street are havens for butterflies, other interesting insects, and the wildflowers that go with them.  One can hike more than two miles on the Ice Age Trail from Columbus Street to Aurora Medical Center, experiencing many different habitat and restoration areas along the way.

Several trails also originate on Goodwin Road in the preserve – at the east end Yellow Birch, Black Cherry, and Trillium trails all begin. Yellow Birch is a lovely boardwalk trail in the forest and is easily walked.  Trillium and Black Cherry Trails are more primitive, and are improved only where bridges cross the wettest areas.  On these trails one can appreciate remnants of the type of forest that used to cover this entire area for thousands of years.

photo of trail with name and rules

Coneflower trail

A special treat is Coneflower Trail, which is seasonally mowed in a prairie planting along Goodwin Road about a quarter mile east of Woodland Drive.  There is a parking lot across the road.  Each year we wait until ground-nesting grassland birds are finished raising their young before we mow, but that often coincides with the blooming of many wildflowers and flights of butterflies and others.  The trail is about 3/4 mile long, and mowing has just been completed.  A viewing platform, constructed in memory of Dr. Bob and Lois Bush, overlooks a restored wetland and pond nearby.  Although very different than the forested trails, the prairie imparts it’s own special feeling as one walks among the blooms surrounded by the activity of so many insects and other animals.

All the trails at Woodland Dunes are open daily from dawn until dusk at no charge.  We ask that dogs only be walked on the Ice Age Trail and that they be kept on a leash at all times so that they don’t disturb native wildlife.  We hope that in walking our trails you come to appreciate and respect the nature of our Lakeshore as much as we do.

Ripples 8/10/17

A while back our education coordinator and I were in the forest at Woodland Dunes, and I encountered a large tree that didn’t look familiar.  It was late fall, all the leaves were off, and the trunk was just a bit different from what I had been used to seeing here. Well, it turned out to be a large elm, a tree that in the past was an important part of our forests and which were all around when I was growing up.  There were two very large elms in the yard at my grandparent’s old farmhouse, and their large, umbrella-shaped crowns shaded much of the yard.  Protruding from one of them was the blade of an old scythe, which no doubt had been left hanging in a crotch and around which the tree had grown as if to prevent the implement from harming any other plants.

photo of healthy white ash tree

Healthy ash tree

We all know what happened to the elms- unfortunately people brought wood pallets laced with a fungus from Europe that caused Dutch Elm disease in the 1930’s.  Our elms weren’t resistant, so they died by the millions, and continue to do so when they reach a certain size. This happened before, when chestnut trees from the Far East brought a fungus which killed virtually all American chestnut trees here.  In my grandparent’s yard, sure enough, the old elms died.  To replace one, my grandfather went to the woods and hitched his tractor to a green ash tree with a chain, pulled it out of the ground, and dragged it to the yard where it was planted and still grows.  Ash were desirable trees- disease resistant, hard wooded, and straight grained unlike the twisty-grained elm (which helped heat many houses after the trees died despite their resistance to decent splitting).

Grandpa’s choice to replace the old elm with an ash tree made sense at the time, but not so much anymore. In the 1990’s, people once again brought a significant foreign species to North America, the emerald ash borer.  It appears to have been brought to the central Great Lakes region and was first identified in Canton, Michigan in 2002.  Like so many other invasives, when this insect was taken to a place where it was free from its usual predators, its population exploded.  In six short years it had reached Wisconsin and now has reached our county. Last week it was announced that it’s been found in the City of Manitowoc.  On its own the insect spreads relatively slowly, but people have spread infested wood products across the region.  Hundreds of millions of ash trees have died already, and millions more will soon perish. Many thousands of those will be in the preserve at Woodland Dunes.

photo of ash tree decimated by emerald ash borer

Ash tree decimated by emerald ash borer

It is difficult to comprehend the changes that such mass die-offs can inflict on ecosystems.  To say that trees are important in our forests is rather foolish, but really the concept deserves a little thought. The trees, or overstory plants, convert sunlight to stored energy (food for themselves and others), intercept falling rain, shade the forest floor, and provide habitat for other species- they are ecosystems in themselves.  Ash trees are hosts for many species of caterpillars of butterflies and moths, and many species of birds visit to find those caterpillars.  All of these will be affected by the introduction of one alien insect brought here on wood pallets.

A few species will benefit- especially woodpeckers and some parasitic wasps.  So far, those animals have had no significant effect in slowing the spread of the emerald ash borer.  We’ll do our best to manage our forest. For several years we’ve been planting other appropriate native species in ash-dominated areas to get a head start on replacing trees we anticipate losing.  We’ll have to greatly increase our efforts in coming years to prevent invasive shrubs and trees from filling the void left by dying ashes.

On a small scale, people can save individual trees by treating them with insecticides.  Treatments can be done once per year, and the cost is modest, considering the value of a nice shade tree.  This would not be practical on a large scale, or in a place like a nature preserve.

Personally, I will consider saving the tree my grandfather planted, and one that I put in the ground some 45 years ago. To see our near future one need only drive an hour or so south.  There are a few dead trees near Sheboygan, and many more as you approach Milwaukee- entire woodlots it appears in some cases.  Although nature is good for us, and healthy, diverse ecosystems can withstand normal threats from pests and disease, one wonders about what these things indicate, that perhaps we are making our forests more fragile and unstable than before.  We have taken a lot from nature, and it has benefited us greatly.  Perhaps now we should give a lot back, or at a minimum, be more thoughtful about what we do.

photos- healthy white ash tree, and tree infested with emerald ash borer